An Interview with Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley has published more than sixty books of poetry in the United States and abroad, including If I Were Writing This (New Directions, 2003), Just in Time: Poems 1984-1994 (2001), Life & Death (1998), Echoes (1994), Selected Poems 1945-1990 (1991), Memory Gardens (1986), Mirrors (1983), The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975 (1982), Later (1979), The Finger (1968), and For Love: Poems 1950-1960 (1962). He has received such honors as the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award and the Frost Medal, as well as Guggenheim, Rockefeller and N.E.A Fellowships. He teaches at Brown University.

Our conversation took place one morning in October 2003, following a reading given at Emerson College in Boston.

RA: I was really taken last night with the anecdote about your daughter rowing the high school crew team, and how you used that occasion to create this metaphor about the individual ego against the backdrop of democracy.

RC: I woke up this morning feeling that we’re always in a world in which the definition of a person or authority comes through competitive qualifications of powers—who wins, who loses—that always within that frame or format will always be this curious separation. You hear anecdotes about so and so really being the best of friends out of the boxing ring or something, how they really don’t seem to hate each other as much as when they’re in it. But the constant intellectual framing of human community as competitive...our country remarkably is so insistent on competition as a means of judging.

I just got through with this I think in some ways destructive—not per fact of its content but per fact of its procedure—this destructive anthology called the Best American Poetry and had emphatically said in the Introduction that one could make these forever: my best is not necessarily your best. And why should it be? I remember Allen Ginsberg’s terrific comment on a poem, “Everybody’s right.” What else could they be, by fact of existence? Everyone thinks he or she is—and feels the world they live in to be—the one.

So I guess I felt that in crew, at least in the way Hannah was physically involved with it, and emotionally and socially. And to be rowing in that charming way without being able to see where you’re going so the final person is there to give you instance of what’s happening, actually to act like a report on where you’re at physically. It gave her the most simple and easy physical rapport with other physical people. That, not just grace, but that inherent record of acceptance of other people’s being physically close and knowing one’s mode and place in that company I think is...delicious. Anyhow, I did not grow up with that ease, of course.

RA: How does that relate to writing, which seems like such a solitary endeavor?

RC: It seems to be until you recognize that you have a lot of company in it. I think the most successful book I ever wrote was probably the most depressing, For Love. Which was, in fact, the awful anguish of failing young love, a really unhappy book by and large. It’s despair endlessly insisted upon. And yet, that was probably the most popular book I ever wrote. [laughs] Although it would seem to be absolutely insisting on the fact that there is no locating company in the universe much less the world. It found endless company because a lot of people felt the same way.

I was sitting once with my son, Will, in New York. And he said, “Look, everybody’s ‘wandering as lonely as a cloud.’” Everyone was sort of walking along, excluding his or her complex despairs and preoccupations.

When I was in New York in my early twenties, I remember having gone to a terrific nightclub, I want to say it was The Open Door. It was an incredible concert with Thelonious Monk with his own terrific group. I know it was John Coltrane and I know it was Ruben Ware on bass and I think it was Connie Kay on drums. But anyhow it was an incredible evening. And both Monk and John Coltrane had just been just extraordinary. Anyhow, I come out of the place and I see everybody going off—various couples, persons, groups—and I remember there were something like four or five persons, men, getting into a car and without even thinking I just get in it with them. And I remember they looked and said, “Who the hell are you?” and I said, “I’m Bob.” And everybody introduced themselves, and it turned into a curiously pleasant evening.

It either takes desperation or idiocy to be able to do that.

RA: How does the idea of human connection in that regard reconcile with the idea of politics, which you seem to emphasize a lot in readings and which seems to be important in your writing. How do you reconcile those two impulses?

RC: I think Jackson Mac Low had been aghast that I’d voted for Nader in the last election. I kept believing in the possibilities of not just in a third party but at least a contrasting and contesting alternate opinion that could be publicly identified. I mean, I came in with the Progressive Citizens of America, with the hope that Henry Wallace might make it in. And that certainly was in one sense a failed enterprise, but it left its mark on early fifties politics. So I felt maybe something like that could at least have—if neither Gore nor Bush seemingly move that far from a class of sort of right wing and/or central/centralist/centrist disposition, maybe having Nader at least will make some alternative. It didn’t for many human reasons. Anyhow Jackson said, “You know, that’s ridiculous, Bob, because politics is the art of the possible. You can’t throw your vote away in some situation that makes it simply symbolic. That’s kind of ridiculous.” So I could hear what he was saying, but still I’d contest what he thinks voting is to begin with. I mean, Jackson, why vote at all if you know that the whole voting procedure is corrupt? Why not just go out and shoot yourself?

RA: A lot of poets are shy about being overtly political.

RC: Well that seems to me either naïve or extraordinarily self-indulgent. Just because something doesn’t seem to affect you because you can avoid it, well that seems to me an extraordinarily suburban belief. It seems to me irresponsible. As a poet, in what I literally write, there has been over the years a remarkably small amount of overt political content. But that certainly hasn’t meant I’ve not had determining political activities and/or beliefs and/or conduct otherwise.

Remember that during the Vietnam War, I felt always faint in a way, although I took part as vigorously as I could. Nonetheless I felt that my poetry per se did not engage the whole business as did say the poets Robert Francis, Robert Duncan, or Robert Bly, or some other type of people. Oh, Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders...many...Seth Olsen...many. Somehow it turned to ashes if I tried to make a direct statement.

RA: You mentioned last night that the goal of some of the new poems was to maximize their potential to be absorbed by the reader.

RC: Make things transparent, I think is what the word would be. There isn’t any overt intellectual intent to write particularly. It’s just that for many seemingly quite obvious human reasons one wants to keep it simple and keep it easy. I don’t jog, for example, I don’t run up the street, and I don’t engage in kinds of activity physically that I might have even ten years ago. So that I’m not so much looking for an easy course, nor am I trying overtly to stay within my limits but my limits are so insistent that I work within that paradigm, that condition.

I think at my age, at 77, you recognize that the world is absolutely every day a fact. I mean, every night is certainly, absolutely, vividly there. There is no necessary imagination and projection of a future that will necessarily be one’s own. The constant kinds of markers or potential that almost everyone lives with in one way or another begin to diminish. And the loss of a world that is also particularizing. The deaths of friends. All these aspects of real life—not that I’m saying I’m going to die—but the kinds of worlds that are presumed upon are not so much taken away but at least become yielded to the immediate and to the evident and to the possible.

I like also the sense of a poetry that becomes common. When young there was seemingly no other way to say it. Not intentionally. I always tried to say it as simply as I could, but it curiously came out in this incredibly knotted manner. There’s a wonderful French poet who out of the blue has started translating Pieces, which I wrote in the late sixties. But, for example, in French it becomes really curious. This is where French is better. French is such a weirdly terrific language to think in. I mean its whole sort of authority because you think things in French. You feel things in other languages but in French you think things. And so this translation is just terrific. And it’s just interesting to see how the French accomplishes what I thought I was saying. It isn’t as if I didn’t think those things now or have impulse to, but it’s just feeling most at ease with a poetry that... I remember Williams in the late poems takes on the “flow gently, sweet Afton,” etc.... That’s where I’m at: “flow gently, sweet Afton.”

RA: It’s a different diction.

RC: Yeah, a different rhythm, it’s very quieted. It’s not dancing the foxtrot, not even the waltz but the two-step.

RA: Definitely. I think the poems come across as more immediate, more intimate.

RC: Yeah, they’re reaching out, they want to tell you something.

RA: I think a lot of poets, at least a lot of MFA students I should say, shy away from that type of directness.

RC: Well why shouldn’t they? It would be ridiculous for them to start writing like a person in my circumstance at their age. That would just be absurd. I could be very moved by Williams’s late poems as I was definitely by Yeats, and Stevens. Those poems at the time were just so moving to me. And I could learn from their pace but I certainly didn’t...I wasn’t “an old man.” I hadn’t “had enough.” So it would have been inappropriate for me to use that aspect of his writing. Now I can.

RA: Your quote that one hears a lot, that “Form is never more than an extension of its content...”

RC: One could then say that content is never more than an extension of form. [laughs] I guess the most enduring fact is that they’re “welded forever.” That you certainly don’t get one without the other. Even if it’s absolutely inappropriate.

RA: At the time it sounded like an argument for freeing poetry from the strictures of received forms.

RC: It was. But it was trying to assert that the formal disposition of poetry such as we had been writing variously comes from the engagement of the content. Trying to find, like Williams said, “How to get said what must be said?” That was the rationale: How do you get said what must be said? That argued that one found the formal conditions of the poem in writing it. And the content just came.

It was setting certain well-thought-of ideas to verse. Poets have done that brilliantly for time immemorial. But it was a very different thinking. Like Williams said, a poet thinks with his poem. That kind of occasion is the one we were after. During it, the poet thinks with his poem. When the poem becomes a means of reifying or realizing or apprehending thinking and feeling as a human kind of circumstance.

We were much as like the painters in that context. The whole range of the arts was fairly much engaged with that.

RA: So if you follow that form is indeed an extension of content, what does it mean that you’re writing a good deal in received forms?

RC: Well that’s part of the content. It’s not so much an enhancement of the content, but the fact is that the content is instance of writing. The writer of the poems needs a locating containment. Just as one needs banisters on a staircase, one needs some kind of containment to place them in the activity. In a poem, in poetry, there has to be a constant and a variable. Any aspect of any part of the situation can be the variable and any other part of it can be the constant. But there has to be at least one of each.

Some function, some part of the activity has to be finding its modus as it proceeds. And the other part has to be absolutely regularizing order: 1, 2, 3, 4. But there has to be both. Otherwise, if it’s just one, all constant, it’s tedious beyond belief. Or if it’s all variable then there’s no way to measure or to explain the locus of what’s occurring.

RA: That’s a good way to talk about how form works in a poem.

RC: Yeah, like we meet in the park, that’s the form, but what we do there would be variable.

Ben Friedlander recently has done a very moving and interesting take on Marianne Moore by compounding his own truth about Marianne Moore together with a series of questions to various friends and neighbors, as to what they think of it. The basic question is: Is Marianne Moore a poet one can think of any longer as having an active influence? And so to ask that question of an interesting spectrum of people. And the answers are fascinating.

I think at one point in my answer I’m saying, who else could one think of who so simply could make the line beat backwards? When you say “that’s a backbeat,” it’s very familiar, it’s like coming in on the off-beat. And especially the so-called beboppers used it famously, and the beat would go backwards so at times it was almost as though the rhythm was flowing backwards. She can do that so unaggressively. I thought instantly when this piece was written of how she moves from “the mind is an enchanting thing” to the next line: “is an enchanted thing.” But “is an enchanted thing” is a modest instance of that backbeat, especially when it’s parallel to [singsong to emphasize meter] “the mind is an enchanting thing / is an enchanted thing.” You see? Bob Dylan does it a lot.

Anyhow, I was saying her ear was fascinating. Others picked up on the fact that she could cite it. Her poems were such a wonderful accumulation of references cited literally in the text. She was fascinating. She was so curiously absorbed, and so curiously decorous as a person seemingly, and so curiously occupied with being editor of Dial, that all of her peers thought she was great, like Pound, Williams, etc. Successive generations sort of traded off with Elizabeth Bishop. And because Moore was a very kind of populist poet at the end of her life, remarkably—with the tricorn hat, the interest in baseball, Edsel Ford—that made her, you know, “not a serious literary type.”

RA: Many of the poems in your new collection were originally written as collaborations with visual artists.

RC: Well they were collaborations to the extent that they were agreements.

RA: In “Drawn and Quartered” there were originally fifty-four drawings to accompany the fifty-four quatrains. I thought it was really interesting to see the poem paired with the image.

RC: Yeah, Archie Rand had done these sort of baroque, cartoonish drawings. Reviews have objected, thought they were inappropriate because you couldn’t really see what they referred to. All of which is true, but I like them as quatrains. Let’s say with cups, you know, you can do anything you want with a cup, put coffee in it, etc. But those quatrains—”Drawn and Quartered”—I love the playful uses of quatrains. I love the quatrain. I think it’s my favorite form, favorite pattern. It’s just fun, it’s like finger exercises. That doesn’t argue that they’re worthy of being printed, but I did print them so I obviously thought they were. But I’ve always separated—not with intent—but always because of necessity, the publishers of the poetry were loathe indeed to publish the visual materials. It would be great if those could be included. It grounded the writing a lot more. I don’t know if it would make the poems more interesting or less.

Susan Rothenberg had a show, a ten-year retrospective of her work in New Mexico. They knew that we knew one another and wanted some kind of text or poem or whatever. And they didn’t really confine us. They said, you can do a series, you can do a few or whatever you think’s appropriate. But they wanted something that would locate an impression or feeling of the image that I got from the work. Not interpret it, but just...response. I remember Susan called quite late after I sent it to her. It seemed several days had gone by and I started to get the fear that maybe she hated it and she suddenly called out of the blue and said “How did you know?” And I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “How did you know I felt like that? I didn’t know you that well.” [laughs] I said, “Susan, it’s in your paintings for Chrissakes.” I mean, everything is explicit feeling.

RA: So that became like a dialogue.

RC: Yeah, it became a dialogue. Absolutely and unexpected. But that was exactly what I was trying to get, not to capture Susan Rothenberg and not to forget her, just think about what she paints and make the poems read themselves through me.

RA: A lot’s been said about your time at Black Mountain because the nature of the school was very collaborative.

RC: It was and it wasn’t. I’ve been teaching, actually, a seminar at Brown which is centered on Black Mountain, and one thing I had to instantly make clear to people in the seminar is that I am neither an expert about Black Mountain nor was I there in any defined, real way. I was there for a total of possibly six months at the very end of the college’s existence. My most real relation was to the people of the school, like both students and faculty. But not so much at that time. You know, I was in an extraordinarily fraught state. Often drunk. Very confused.

But I certainly did, I collaborated there with Dan Rice particularly. I saw Mike Rumaker in the last few days. He was one of my terrific friends and students. He was the one that remembers you couldn’t understand a word I was saying for the first eight weeks. Because you couldn’t hear me!

RA: I just want to touch on this last idea. The title of the new collection, If I were writing this, implies a denial of the self, and the title poem takes that idea further. I’ll quote: “I wrote them, thought they were me.”

RC: Well, here’s quick instance. Years ago, I wrote a poem that said:

For love—I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Which to my sense at that time was an extraordinary commitment of faithful, you know, love of this dear person. And this is the length I would go to, to keep love.

Some time later, at some kind of pleasant, general gathering of people, a pleasant woman next to me sort of says, “You know, that very violent poem you wrote?” I said, “I never wrote a violent poem. I’m a gentle, sweet, dear person.” She says, “No, that extraordinarily violent poem you wrote that begins, ‘For love—I would / split open your head.’”

It’s funny, but that was the first moment I thought that. That is very violent.

So, I think in some ways there’s an “I” in that sense. “If I were writing this.” I have in one hand what I think I’m doing. But I am not, finally, what’s saying much of this. Not the “I” of determined and experienced identity. One thing all these years of writing I’ve had to—not had to, I’ve enjoyed—reconciling is I am not rightly responsible for what’s being said here. I’d like to be. But I can’t be. Because something’s “writing through me.” That’s what Lawrence means by “not I but the wind that blows through me.”

RA: Is that something of the “connivance of words?”

RC: Well, it’s the permission that says whatever happens, your determination is part of the action, not the necessary one. As we both know, when something like this happens, we can’t really take credit for it because we didn’t know what we were doing. “If I were writing this.” But I’m not writing this, it’s been written.

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